Even the cleanest health club provides an ideal environment for a variety of skin diseases. That's unfortunate because an estimated one-third of American adults has some type of skin disease at any given time, And more than half of all infectious diseases among athletes are contracted cutaneously, or through the skin.

The problem with health clubs is that they provide plenty of heat and humidity, along with the secretions from hundreds of perspiring bodies.

Result: Fungi, bacteria and viruses survive and may even proliferate on floor mats, towels, hand weights, treadmills, weight machines and other equipment. Viruses and bacteria may survive for hours on metal and other gym surfaces—some fungi can survive for years. And the skin chafing that occurs during workouts makes it easy for these organisms to penetrate the body's defenses.

Main Risks

Most skin infections, such as athlete's foot and jock itch, are an annoyance and easy to treat. They're unpleasant but unlikely to pose a serious threat

One dangerous exception is community-acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (CA-MRSA). This is a potentially lifethreatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria that's increasingly found in exercise settings.

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that 42% of nasal swabs from professional football players tested positive for MRSA, even if the players did not have active infections.

Fortunately, most MRSA and other gym-acquired skin infections can be prevented. How to protect yourself...

  • Wash gym clothes after every workout. Many people keep their exercise clothes in a duffel bag or backpack. They change into them at the gym and then pack them up and take them home, but they wear them repeatedly before putting them in the wash.

Unwashed athletic clothing—even when you didn't break a sweat—acts as a reservoir for disease-causing microbes. Wearing these clothes repeatedly increases the risk that the organisms will colonize and/or penetrate the skin. And if you wear clothes repeatedly and don't change before you leave the gym, it spreads the organisms to other areas, such as the seat of your car, where you or someone else can get infected.

Solution: Don't wear your exercise clothes out of the gym. Take them off as soon as you're done with your workout, and wash them when you get home. A normal wash cycle with hot water and detergent will eliminate virtually all germs.

It's just as important to wash the bag that you use to carry your gym clothes. Put it in the washing machine if it's washable. The easiest thing to do is use a mesh bag that you can throw in the washer with your clothes. If your bag is not washable, you can swab the inside with a solution made from one part bleach and 10 parts water. Never stuff your gym clothes into your briefcase or purse.

Also, wash a reusable water bottle when you get home.

  • Shower after your workout. The longer infectious organisms stay on the skin, the higher the risk for infection.

Solution: Shower after each gym workout and when you work out at home. When you shower, wash every part of your body including the bottoms of the feet, between the toes, the groin area and the lower and upper legs. Also, wear shower shoes, such as flip-flops, in the shower and locker room-but be sure to still wash your feet.

  • Use an antimicrobial liquid soap. Soap bars, even when they're antibacterial, can harbor germs long enough to spread them from one part of the body to another-or, when the soap is shared, from person to person.

Be sure the liquid soap is labeled antimicrobial, not just antibacterial. Antimicrobial soap kills a broader spectrum of pathogens. An antibacterial soap kills only bacteria.

  • Wash your hands before and after. Because MRSA can live indefinitely in nasal secretions, and we all touch our noses frequently, the organism is readily transferred from one person to another

Solution: Wash your hands-vigorously, for about 30 seconds, using an antimicrobial soap--when you arrive at the gym (in case you're bringing in germs) and again when you're done with your workout.

  • Use alcohol wipes. Many people who exercise at health clubs carry a hand towel as they work out. They use it to wipe down exercise bars, the seats on rowing machines, etc. This is not effective for preventing infection. It only removes sweat/moisture left by the previous user-it does not eliminate microbes and can, in fact, transfer them to other surfaces.

Solution: If your gym provides spray bottles of disinfectant and paper towels, use those to clean every piece of equipment-the handles, bars, seats, etc.-before you use it, or bring along a package of alcohol wipes. You can reuse the same wipe for multiple areas as long as it's still damp with alcohol. I also recommend bringing your own floor mat if you use one) and wiping it down with disinfectant or an alcohol wipe after each use.

  • Stay dry. Tinea pedis (athlete's foot) is among the most common gym-acquired infections. Others include tinea cruris (jock itch) and tinea capitis or tinea corporis (ringworm).

These fungi tend to thrive in the areas of the body that accumulate moisture, such as the feet or the groin.

Solution: Dry your feet and groin thoroughly after showering. Don't put on your clothes until your entire body is completely dry.

Helpful: After your feet are dry, dust them with a moisture-absorbing powder-regular baby powder works well.

  • Avoid "cosmetic" shaving. Those who shave more than just the face, legs and armpits are more likely to get a skin infection than those who shave only these traditional areas. Studies have shown that people who shave their "tender" areas, such as the chest or pubic area, are up to six times more likely to get MRSA than those who don't. Even a smooth, comfortable shave can create micro-nicks in the skin that make you vulnerable to bacterial infections.

Solution: Ideally, shave only your face, legs and/or underarms. And be sure to wash your entire body with an antimicrobial soap immediately after workouts. Never use a shared razor-if you shave at the gym, bring your own shaving gear.

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